About Australian Rules Football

Overview

Australian rules football, officially known as Australian football, also called football, footy or Aussie rules – is a sport played between two teams of 18 players on the field on either an Australian rules football ground, a modified cricket field or another modified sports venue.

The objective of the game is to score points by passing the ball through the team’s goal. The main way to score points is by kicking the ball between the two major goal posts. The team with the higher total score at the end of the match wins unless either a draw is declared or a tie-break is used.

During most play, players may position themselves anywhere on the field and use any part of their body to move the ball. The primary methods are kicking, hand-balling and running with the ball. There are rules on how the ball can be handled: for example, players running with the ball must intermittently bounce or touch it on the ground.

Throwing the ball is not allowed and players must not get caught holding the ball. Possession of the ball is in dispute at all times except when a free kick is paid. A distinctive feature of the game is the mark, where players anywhere on the field who catch a ball from a kick (with specific conditions), are awarded a free kick.

Australian rules is a contact sport, in which players can tackle using their hands or use their whole body to obstruct opponents. Dangerous physical contact (such as pushing an opponent in the back), interference when marking and deliberately slowing the play are discouraged with free kicks, distance penalties or suspension, depending on the seriousness of the infringement. Frequent physical contests, spectacular marking, fast movement of both players and the ball and high scoring are the game’s main attributes.

The most prestigious competition is the Australian Football League (AFL), which culminates in the annual AFL Grand Final—currently the highest attended club championship event in the world. Australian football is governed by the AFL Commission, which also runs the AFL competition, and the rules of the game are decided by the AFL’s Laws of the Game Committee.

The Origins of Australian Rules Football

As early as 1841, there is documented evidence of “foot-ball” being played in metropolitan and country Victoria as well as mention of early matches in Adelaide (1843) and southern Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). While the exact rules being played in these matches are unknown they may have shared similarities and influences.

In 1858 English public school football games began to be played in Melbourne and surrounding districts. The earliest known such match was played on 15 June 1858 between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School on the St Kilda foreshore.

A letter by Tom Wills was published in Bell’s Life in Victoria & Sporting Chronicle on 10 July 1858, calling for a “foot-ball club”, or some other “athletic game”, with a “code of laws” to keep cricketers fit during winter. This letter is regarded by many historians as being a catalyst for the development of a new code of football in 1859 which is today known as Australian football.

On 31 July, a knock-a-bout match at Yarra Park was played between a “St Kilda scratch team” and “Melbourne scratch team”. Trees were used for goal posts and there were no boundaries and the match lasted from 1pm until dark. There were no rules and fights frequently broke out. Melbourne being a relatively young city, the majority of the early players were migrants and the media of the time noted that participants of each nationality played the game their own distinctive way: the English played in a fashion that resembled rugby football, the Scots played recklessly, and the Irish played in a fashion that resembled the Irish sport of Gaelic football.

Another significant milestone in the sport’s development was a match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College, which began on 7 August 1858 at Richmond Park, was umpired by Wills and Macadam, and which also involved Scotch College headmaster Thomas H. Smith. A second day of play took place on 21 August and a third and final day on the 4th of September.

While the full rules that were used is unknown, some details of the match survived. It was played with a round ball, the distance between the goals was approximately half a mile (approximately four times longer than the modern Melbourne Cricket Ground playing surface), there were 40 players per side and one goal each side was scored with the game being declared a draw. The two schools have competed annually ever since for the Cordner-Eggleston Cup.

The Culture of Australian Rules Football

Australian football is a sport rich in tradition and Australian cultural references, especially surrounding the rituals of game day for players, officials and supporters.

Australian football has attracted more overall interest among Australians (as measured by the Sweeney Sports report) than any other football code, and, when compared with all sports throughout the nation, has consistently ranked first in the winter reports, and most recently third behind cricket and swimming in the summer.

In 2006, a total of 615,549 registered participants played Australian football in Australia. Participation increased 7.84% between 2005–06. The Australian Sports Commission statistics show a 42% increase in the total number of participants over the 4 year period between 2001–2005.

Australian football is played in more than 30 countries around the world. In 2004, there were a total of over 25,000 participants outside of Australia. This has grown to about 35,000 people in 32 countries playing in structured competitions outside of Australia, with Australian rules being the national sport of Nauru.

Many related games have emerged from football, mainly with variations of contact to encourage greater participation. These include Kick-to-kick (and its variants such as “End to End Footy” and “Markers Up”), Auskick, Rec Footy, Women’s Australian rules football, 9-a-side Footy, Masters Australian Football, handball and longest-kick competitions. Players outside of Australia sometimes engage in related games on the available fields, like Metro Footy (played on gridiron fields) and Samoa Rules (played on rugby fields).

International Australian Rules Football

Australian rules football is played at an amateur level in various countries around the world. Over 30 countries are home to clubs or leagues who play regularly, with around 20 that have either affiliation or working agreements with the AFL. There have been several players in the VFL/AFL who were born outside Australia and since 1982, an increasing number of players have been recruited from outside Australia through initiatives such as the Irish experiment and more recently, international scholarship programs.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the game spread with the Australian Diaspora to areas such as New Zealand and South Africa; however this growth went into rapid decline following World War I. After World War II, the sport experienced a small amount of growth in the Pacific region, particularly in Nauru, Papua New Guinea and later New Zealand.

Most of the current amateur clubs and leagues in existence have developed since the 1980s, when leagues began to be established in North America, Europe and Asia. As the size of the Australian diaspora has increased, so has the number of clubs outside Australia. This expansion has been further aided by multiculturalism and assisted by exhibition matches as well as exposure generated through players who have converted to and from other football codes. In Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States there are many thousands of players.

The AFL became the de facto governing body when it pushed for the closure of the International Australian Football Council in 2002. The Australian Football International Cup is currently the highest level of senior international competition.